The progress movement is a multi-disciplinary effort, covering such territory as the history and social science of innovation, the philosophy of progress, and metascience. All of these fields add valuable perspectives to the whole, but in this post, I want to highlight futurism as a critical element.

As a definition, I'll call futurism (or "futurology" or "futures studies," as Wikipedia seems to prefer) the systematic study of technological advancement for the purpose of understanding how people will live in the future. To do futurism right, you have to understand social science and history but also natural science, engineering, and business.

Why is futurism important for progress? Futurism can imbue the progress community with a more concrete vision of the future. That matters for at least three reasons.

First, a concrete vision can promote constructive actions that drive progress. To be sure, it is possible to be pro-progress without any specific vision of the future. Within (say) libertarianism, I think this combination of views is very common. For the past 50 years, politicians have used the existence of societal problems to justify the creation of new government programs. If you tend to oppose the unrelenting accretion of programs, as libertarians do, you may then want to expound a sort of Whig history that emphasizes the glory of the present compared to the benighted past. On this view, we just need to sit back, adopt free markets and the rule of law, and let progress continue. Problems go away, as if by magic. No new programs necessary. We can even invoke a bastardized version of Hayek, arguing that no one can possibly know what new economic possibilities the future holds.

A problem with such indefinite optimism, to borrow a term from Peter Thiel, is that it promotes passivity. The invisible hand only works because of people acting and choosing. If the invisible hand drives progress forward, as the Whigs believe, it is only because some people make plans and execute them, and together these people make society better.

If we want progress to happen faster, we need people to make good plans that will work to drive progress forward. In other words, we need a realistic vision of what future possibilities are, where the profit opportunities lie, and what are the missing pieces of the puzzle.

Second, a concrete vision can get normal people excited about progress. There are many of us who think about the world in highly abstract terms. We not only intellectualize, we are motivated by our intellectualizations. We get excited about the idea of progress and technological development as such.

A lot of normal people aren't like this. A statement like "future technological progress will reduce the burden of human disease" doesn't move the needle on their excitement. But if you have specifics, like "control over mRNA and related technologies could make virtually all forms of cancer easily treatable," that piques interest. Even more so if you can explain how exactly it would work and what the remaining technical obstacles are.

A credible and concrete vision of the future afforded by careful study can bring normal people to Team Progress. There are many more of them than there are of us, so if we want to achieve significant progress, we probably need to recruit some normies.

Third, a concrete vision can tell us where we are going wrong. One of the challenges we face as a movement is getting people to even agree that progress is slowing down. We can point to abstract statistics like total factor productivity, but people look at their phones and think we live in an age of wonders, completely ignoring all the other fields in which stagnation has ruled.

There is one area, however, in which stagnation is indisputable—high-speed travel. After all, the Concorde had its first flight in 1969 and entered service in 1976. It cruised at a brisk 1320 mph. Since it retired in 2003, it is impossible at any price to travel in a civil aircraft faster than 660 mph. Even Elon Musk's Gulfstream cruises at under 600 mph.

The point is not that we need to fix high-speed travel, although we certainly do. It's that it's only an accident of history that there is such a clear example of stagnation, one of which we can credibly convince the doubters, at least as far as it goes. In reality, stagnation is all around us if only we do the work to understand what futures are possible. For example, if we had a sane regulatory environment, nuclear power might cost 2¢/kWh as opposed to 3–4 times that much. But to become convinced of that requires interdisciplinary work (understanding physics, engineering, the energy business) to understand the realm of the possible—essentially, futurism.

                                              

The progress movement can't be mere futurism. We need the historians and social scientists and philosophers and the metascientists. But I think if we are to succeed as a movement, we must be concrete about what we want to achieve. And for that, we need to think rigorously about the future.

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Strong agree. I called out “vision for the future” as one of four key areas that progress studies writers should focus on here: “What would a thriving progress movement look like?

I would add another reason for futurism that's maybe even more important: it can inspire and motivate scientists, inventors, and founders—exactly the people who will be actually making these breakthroughs. It can spotlight exciting opportunities and help direct their efforts. (Maybe this is just a part of your first reason.)

Because of all this, I think J. Storrs Hall did a great service with his book Where Is My Flying Car? It's on my short list of essential progress books.

Effective progress studies and actions would be well thought of as Startups. Presenting concrete and distinct visions of the future that are actually desirable to 'normies' is what will drive growth and interest in these fields. The visions and implications of our abstractions should be regularly means-tested against users (i.e. the general population) and if they don't want what we're pitching, you should be open toward pivoting in the direction of their expressed consensuses. At the very least this will help ensure that you're grappling in a workspace that is actually meaningful to average people, which will then increase your ability to go play in more removed fields of abstraction. Adventuring into abstract landscapes is fun and meaningful, but you can't patent an abstract concept and you can't get Tom from down the block to hand you a tenner for a verbal description of a hypersphere. 

I think there's an interesting sociocultural counterpoint to be made here by studying the Italian Futurists 

The Futurists admired speed, technology, youth and violence, the car, the airplane and the industrial city, all that represented the technological triumph of humanity over nature, and they were passionate nationalists. They repudiated the cult of the past and all imitation, praised originality... and gloried in science.

I think the glorification of ["humanity over nature", "young over old", "brash over wise", "strong over weak", "future over present", "men over women"] (all touted beliefs of the Italian Futurists) is unwise and harmful.

Your definition of futurism ("the systematic study of technological advancement for the purpose of understanding how people will live in the future") isn't harmful. It's more a field of study than an ideology, but I wonder how quickly "pure academics" can turn ideological, especially when sharing the name of an old ideology.

I agree with you totally about the need to study and understand how people will live in the future, I just have also been thinking about how I see some of the traits of the old Futurism in the water. I see young men worshipping the new, the fast, the human, the strong... and I see some of those young men drawn to movements like Effective Altruism and Progress Studies, and the tech industry more broadly.

I wonder how movements like Progress Studies can be clear about what we are willing to sacrifice for "Futurism", and what we are not. How do we avoid repeating the cultural mistakes of past technologists & futurists? Do we even agree about what those mistakes are?

Interesting and important piece, thanks for sharing!

I think to avoid repeating past mistakes, it's crucial to remember that (1) technology and industry are ultimately valuable only in the service of human well-being, and (2) in order to ensure this, we need more than just technology and industry: we need the recognition and protection of individual rights.

Yes, I think the Italian Futurists provide us with interesting lessons. One reason their movement was so short-lived was the onset of WW1. A bunch of them died in various conflicts, but the intellectual foundations of the movement were also killed off. According to Marinetti and friends, technology and machinery was the source of dynamism and progressive change in society, and war was a primary means of putting this machinery to use. Yet in practice, the main 'achievement' of technological advancement in this period was a novel 'meat-grinder' style of warfare, one that ushered in the industrial-scale killing of faceless statistics. Rather than dynamic progress, they got pointless, static violence.

Both sides of the war had perfectly concrete visions of the future. Yet pursuit of these competing visions of progress caused them to largely neutralize each other. I therefore appreciate Eli's focus upon a vision of the future that is constructive and credible, as well as concrete. 

Balla's Street Light was a personal favorite from my history of art class as an undergrad.